By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Massiah Browne is a bonafide hero, but the 7-year-old doesn’t even know it.
“My brown is turning gray,” Massiah giggled while examining the backs of his hands. The pool water had begun to prune his skin as he posed for a photo.
When asked how it feels to be a hero, the 4-foot-1 sensation was as short in words as he is in stature, saying simply, it feels “good.”
After swimming to the bottom of a six-foot deep pool to save a 3-year-old from drowning at his Greenhaven apartment complex July 19, the lifelong swimmer who took classes at the local YMCA has become one of the few Blacks to garner national attention for accomplishments in swimming.
His heroic rescue began not as an altruistic act of good samaritanism, but as one of playful, childlike defiance.
“I was telling them to get out of the pool because it was time to go, but they weren’t listening to me,” said Massiah’s aunt, Tiffany Bermudez. She brought Massiah and his 9-year-old relative Savannah Martinborough to the pool the evening of the event.
Instead, the two continued to play, swimming to the deep end. That’s when Bermudez said she heard Massiah say, “There’s a body at the bottom of the pool.”
“I thought they were pranking me,” said Bermudez, 23. “But when I looked, I saw something big and dark at the bottom of the pool.”
Massiah submerged his head. He said he could see the open eyes and open mouth of a toddler.
“First we thought he was just playing and floating under the water,” Savannah said. “But how are you gonna stay under the water for that long?”
Massiah swam to the bottom of the pool. Grabbing the toddler by the arms, he pulled the 3-year-old to the surface.
“When Massiah brought him up and let him go, [the child] was floating – face down,” said Bermudez, who said she then experienced a panic attack.
Savannah said she helped Massiah pull the child out of the water. When asked about this moment, Bermudez said, “I don’t know. By that time I was telling the family that somebody’s kid – somebody’s baby – was in the water. It was like a blackout kind of moment.”
In a video seen on a local news station, the child was resuscitated by members of his family who performed CPR. The child then was taken by paramedics who were called to the scene.
“It was scary,” said Massiah’s mother, Tiara Delvalle, 29, who named her first-born son to reflect her faith in God. “Me and Massiah prayed that night because we still didn’t know if the boy was OK.”
The child has recovered fully, said Delvalle, who exchanged messages on social media with the parent of the 3-year-old. She said the parent expressed immense gratitude to Massiah for saving her baby.
Swim instructor Vanessa Mayorca, who taught Massiah during her April classes at the Sacramento Central YMCA, said her former student’s actions came as no surprise.
“It’s a surprising event, but it didn’t surprise me that it was from him,” said Mayorca, 19. “A lot of kids are very hesitant to do jumps in the deep end but he just went for it. He would jump in, sink to almost the bottom and pop right back out, smiling.”
Mayorca said the event reiterated why water safety is important.
“I like to firmly tell [children] that if they don’t know how to swim, then they will sink and that they need to be close to an adult,” Mayorca said. “I teach floating and how to dive down into the water to retrieve objects like rings or any other toys that sink.”
Armed with tools learned from local swim classes, natural prowess, and razor-sharp instincts, many wonder what the future holds for young Massiah.
When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Massiah was more interested in playing with his 4-year-old brother, Mason, and their 17-week-old French bulldog. He did manage to name a few things: a veterinarian, a rapper and, of course, a lifeguard.
“He’s a kid – he doesn’t know what he wants to do, he just knows he wants to help people,” said Massiah’s father, Marcus Browne, 31, an Olympian who boxed in the 2012 games. “If you ask me, I think he’s going to be a swimmer. Swimming is a predominantly White sport but it’s time to switch it up with some flavor.”
There are very few professional swimmers who look like Massiah. Maritza Correia in 2004 became the first African American swimmer to win an Olympic medal. Nearly a decade later, in 2012, Cullen Jones snagged a relay gold medal, and Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal in 2016.
Even more telling, 64% of African American children have little to no swimming ability, compared to 40% of White children, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.
“You don’t see a lot of Black people who dominate in swimming,” Delvalle said. “Look at how talented [Massiah] is at this age. If this is something he wants to do, we definitely have to stick with it.”
Delvalle not only supports his swimming, but his passion for music. She played his song “Siah Fire” while he was photographed by the pool.
While she admitted the media attention is “a lot” for her son and that she too is “still taking it all in,” she said the event is a reminder that life isn’t promised.
“You could be having fun at the pool and, just like that, a tragedy could have occured. I’m just so happy that the other child survived,” Delvalle said. “And I’m so blessed that God chose me to be Massiah’s mother. My 7-year-old is a hero – he literally saved a life.”